Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

I bought this book on the strong recommendation of Michael Shermer and then last fall saw the author, Donald R. Prothero, give a presentation at Shermer’s Origins-Big Questions conference at CalTech.  Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters is an amazing explanation of evolution from the fossil record and a great refutation of creationism.  It looks and feels like a textbook, but is written for a lay audience and is very readable.

The first chapter describes the nature of science and the following contrasts science and creationism.  Next, Prothero describes the fundamentals (the other type of fundamentals are covered in Chapter Two) of the fossil record,  then devotes chapters to the evolution of evolution and to the relationship between accurate systematics (cladistics) and accurate evolutionary science.  Starting with Chapter Six and running through the penultimate chapter, Prothero provides an amazingly clear description of what the fossil record (and other scientific methods) tell us about evolution.  The chapters cover life’s origins, the Cambrian “explosion,” ancient bacteria, fish, what we used to call amphibians, land animals that evolved back into water-dwellers, dinosaurs (including the currently popular feathered type), the mammalian explosion, ungulates, and finally humans.  This is not a quick read, but the book is filled with charts, illustrations and photos which break up the text and make the science easier to follow.  The total effect is quite overwhelming.

Throughout all these chapters, Prothero never lets up on the creationists.  He chronicles, with references, their deceptions, their obstinacy and their bad science.  The last chapter, “Why Does It Matter,” criticizes the hypocrisy of Christian creationists and lists and explains seven reasons why we should care.  If you’re interested, his reasons are

1.  Creationism is a narrow sectarian religious belief and cannot be taught in public schools without violating the Constitution.

2.  The attack on evolution is really an attack on all of science.

3.  Creationists are threatening, harassing and intimidating our public schools, universities and museums.

4.  Thanks in part to creationists, the American public is appallingly illiterate in basic science.

5.  America has fallen behind many other nations in technological and scientific supremacy, which threatens the economic future of us all.

6.  Denial of evolution is not just bad science, but it threatens our health and well being.

7.  Allowing ideologues of any type to suppress science through political means is deadly for a society as well.

The book could have used one more review by an editor (a few too many repeated sentences and phrases), but otherwise it was quite straight-forward.   The chapter-by-chapter refutation of creationism caught me off guard, but I think his point was to be thorough in describing their reactions to the full gamut of the fossil record of evolution.   By the way, he begins and ends the book by stating that anyone can think anything they want to and they can say anything they want to.  He also makes a nod to the possible connections between spirituality and scientific understanding or science-inspired wonder.  His objection is, repeatedly, to the creationists forcing non-scientific “thinking” onto children, textbook publishers, schools, local school boards, federally-funded museums and universities, and the unfortunately scientifically illiterate public at-large.

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